My Bizarre Homeless Night in Amsterdam

by wheretheroadforks

After an unexpected delay in London, I arrived at Amsterdam central train station around midnight. Being the cheap traveler that I am, I figured I’d just spend the remainder of the night wandering around rather than looking for a place to sleep. I didn’t have much of a choice anyway. After all, it was peak season and late at night so I probably couldn’t find a bed if I wanted to. Over the next few hours, I met a series of strange characters and witnessed some odd events. The whole night feels surreal looking back. Like a fever dream. This is the story of my bizarre homeless night in Amsterdam.

A canal in Amsterdam
A canal in Amsterdam

This night took place near the beginning of my first solo trip back in the summer of 2011. At the time, I was an inexperienced traveler. I made the beginner mistake of arriving in one of the most popular tourist cities in the world during peak season in the middle of the night without booking accommodation in advance. I didn’t know where I was, where to go, or what to do.

To make matters worse, I didn’t travel with a smartphone or any internet-connected device in those days. Pretty much nobody did. In 2011, smartphones and WiFi were just becoming common. Instead, I relied on common computers in hostels and internet cafes to book accommodation. Anyway, the internet cafes were all closed as it was the middle of the night so I had no way to go online to look for a place to stay.

Buildings in Amsterdam

After a long day in transit, I felt pretty hungry when I arrived in Amsterdam. I decided to wander outside of the central train station to find myself something to eat. At this time I didn’t know that I couldn’t reenter until the morning as the station closes at night. Leaving turned out to be a mistake.

While strolling alongside a canal looking for an open restaurant, a lone cyclist wobbled by me. He zigzagged precariously alongside the canal, obviously intoxicated. He slowly turned his handlebars and slumped over onto the pavement about 100 feet in front of me.

A small group of people saw the man fall and rushed across the street to attend to him. The good Samaritans looked him over, helped him back on his bike, pat him on the back, and sent him on his way. I continued walking past them as they assisted the man.

Moments later, the drunk Dutchman zigzagged by me again. Of course, he fell off again after only riding around a block. This time about 20 feet in front of me.

I was in no mood to deal with a drunk person so I just continued walking. He was too drunk to ride a bike and I was hungry, after all.

The same group jogged up the path to assist the cyclist once more. They held his bike upright while helping him climb back on. He was soon cruising down the path once again.

Of course, he fell off once more. This time nearly falling into the canal. His group of helpers had given up at this point.

Miraculously, the cyclist appeared to have sobered up a bit during his last spill. He managed to climb back onto his bike by himself and rode off into the dark. I imagine the cyclist had a rough next day with a hangover and plenty of fresh scrapes and bruises.

Amsterdam during the day
Amsterdam during the day

After the show, I continued walking until I found a pizza restaurant. The place was dead and the pizza looked ancient but it was the only restaurant I could find that was still open. I ordered myself a couple of slices and sat down at a booth at the back of the restaurant while the guy behind the counter re-heated them for me.

While I waited, another employee opened a hatch in the floor behind the counter. I assume the small opening led to a storage room of some sort. The guy walked down a few stairs so that half of his body was above ground and half below.

For a minute, he just stood there looking down toward his feet. He looked kind of awkward just standing there with half of his body above ground and half below. Suddenly, he lifted up a pitcher full of fresh urine. Evidently, that was their bathroom.

After eating my disappointing pizza, I decided to walk back to the train station and just wait until morning. When I arrived, a security guard informed me that the station was closed until morning unless I had a ticket. My Eurail pass wasn’t sufficient because I didn’t have a reservation to go along with it.

I didn’t have any plans or any place to go so I decided to walk around to kill some time. I strolled around Amsterdam with my backpack through the middle of the night not knowing where I was.

After my legs started to tire out, I began looking for a place to sit down and rest for a bit. Maybe even get catch a couple of hours of sleep. I’m not a fan of wild camping in urban areas but sometimes it’s the only choice. I found a deserted bench and sat down. The street was pretty empty and dark.

Out of nowhere, a muscular guy with a shaved head sat down right beside me without saying a word. This was particularly strange because there were plenty of empty benches nearby where he could have sat by himself. Of course, some weirdo has to come bother me, I thought to myself.

After taking a seat, the strange man removed his tobacco, rolling papers, and filters from his pocket and set them out in his lap. He proceeded to roll himself a cigarette without saying a word to me the entire time. He acted like I wasn’t even there.

After the strange man finished, he put his cigarette rolling gear away and lit up his smoke. He then placed his hand on my knee and said, “it’s going to be alright.” At the same time, he got up and walked away without saying another word. The whole experience felt kind of surreal. He was like a creepy ghost.

After the strange man left, I laid down on the bench and relaxed for an hour or so. I couldn’t get any sleep. Around 4 am I made the couple mile walk back to the train station. I wanted to make sure I knew where I was so I didn’t get too lost in the city.

A canal in Amsterdam

Soon after I arrived, the station opened and I went inside with a group of travelers who were waiting out front. I found a bench where I could sit and kill some more time. I just wanted to wait until businesses started opening up in the morning so I could find a hostel and get a decent meal.

Shortly after I sat down a short young guy dressed in baggy old clothes came and sat down on the seat right next to me, even though there were hundreds of empty seats in the station. I couldn’t believe this was happening again.

What does this guy want? I thought.

The guy started off by trying to bum a cigarette. I don’t smoke so I didn’t have any. I hoped he would just go away to bother someone else but he didn’t, of course. Instead, he continued talking. The guy had the gift of gab.

Honestly, I didn’t feel like talking but kept responding anyway so as to not be rude. Admittedly, I was feeling a bit lonely after a long night wandering around on my own without any sleep, so I started talking to the guy. He seemed harmless enough. These days, I would probably have told him to get lost but I was a bit more patient back then.

I learned that he originally came from Wales but lived as a homeless man in Amsterdam. He told me that he made money by busking. At night, he would find someplace quiet to sleep. Usually, he’d climb into a boat in one of the canals late at night while nobody was looking. Evidently, he had struck out at finding a place to sleep that night and spent the night wandering around just like I had. He went into the train station that morning to rest.

I also learned that this guy had an unhealthy infatuation with the Dutch. He tried to convince me how amazing their laws and culture are. How Dutch people are more sophisticated, their language is better, they’re smarter, etc. He was a real pro-Dutch propagandist.

Anyway, after 15 minutes or so of chatting, the guy asked me if I wanted to go grab a bite to eat at a breakfast restaurant he knew of. I was hungry anyway so I decided to go along.

Of course, he didn’t have any money. Before we left the station, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to give him 2 cents. The guy told me no problem. He’ll just do some busking until he earns enough cash for breakfast.

While we walked toward the restaurant, he pulled a crumpled up piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was a handwritten poem. This guy made money by reciting his own poetry to random passers-by on the street.

When I read his cringy and nonsensical poem, I thought to myself, there is no way this will work. We aren’t going to be eating for hours. This poem is complete trash. The one part I liked was the ending. The last stanza ended with ‘have a nice day.’

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My new buddy approached a well-dressed man, read off his short poem, and held out his hat as he recited the last line with enthusiasm. The man smiled and dug into his pocket and pulled out a couple of euros in coins. It worked on the very first guy. I couldn’t believe it.

He continued his work as we walked to the restaurant. I’d guess about 50% of the people he approached gave him money. If they didn’t give any him money, he’d ask for a cigarette. He almost never walked away empty-handed. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, he had earned about 10 euros and a hand full of smoke. I was impressed.

The restaurant itself was a European style breakfast buffet. They offered all you can eat platters of meats, cheeses, and bread. I expected us to go to a cheap market for some pastries. The place was kind of high end for a homeless guy to eat breakfast.

We stuffed ourselves with as much food as we could eat. The bill was about 9 euro each. More than I wanted to spend but at least I left with a full stomach and wouldn’t need to eat lunch. I don’t know why or how a homeless guy could spend 9 euro on breakfast but who am I to judge?

After leaving the restaurant, the guy continued with his poetry gig as we walked. He made a few euro here and there and scored some more cigarettes. It seemed like he only targeted a specific type of person. He only approached people that he suspected would be likely to give him money. I don’t know what he was looking for but he wouldn’t approach just anybody.

At this point, I was getting tired. I asked my buddy if he knew of any budget hostels. He walked me to a few and explained how he would stay some of them if he had a particularly good day of work.

Every now and then, he’d bust out his poem and make a couple of euro along the way. I couldn’t get over the amount of money this guy was raking in with such little skill and effort. He was a hustler.

After about 6 hostels, I finally found one with an available dorm bed. I checked in and took a nap. My friend wandered off go recite more poetry. After I woke up, I left the hostel and explored Amsterdam for the remainder of the day by myself. Nothing of note happened.

The following day, I found that the hostel was fully booked so I packed my bag and left. I proceeded to check for a vacancy at several of the hostels that I visited the previous day. Nothing was available.

I went online to look for a bed for the night. Unfortunately, I found that everything was either fully booked or way out of my budget. I didn’t want to leave Amsterdam after only spending one full day there. I had a lot left to see.

Luckily I always travel with a tent. I found that there was a campground not too far away. It was located on the edge of the city. Best of all, it was accessible by tram.

I made my way to the campground and set up my tent just as it began to rain. For the next 5 days, I camped in Amsterdam. I never encountered any of the characters that I had met the first night again.

What I learned During My Homeless Night in Amsterdam

The most important lesson that this experience taught me was to always have a plan when arriving in a new city. Particularly if I plan to arrive late in the night or early in the morning. During those odd hours, public transport often doesn’t run and many hostels and hostels lock their doors for security reasons.

If I had booked a hostel within walking distance of the train station before I left London, I could have avoided the discomfort and uncertainty of wandering around a foreign city in the middle of the night.

These days, I prefer to travel during the night and arrive in a new city the following morning. That way, I can sleep through some of the journey. I also avoid paying for a night of accommodation, which saves me some money. When I arrive, I can get my bearings and find a place to sleep if I haven’t already booked something.

During this trip, I also learned just how busy some European cities get during the peak summer season. Overtourism is definitely a real thing. Every hostel I visited that next day was filled to capacity. I was lucky to score a bed. They must have had a no show or last-minute cancelation. These days, I tend to avoid traveling during peak season.

For the rest of the trip, I booked at least a few days in advance. When I planned to visit a particularly touristy city like Paris, Barcelona, or Rome, I booked up to a week in advance. I had to if I wanted to stay in a decent part of town.

These days, I prefer to travel outside of peak season. It’s cheaper and easier to find accommodation. I also tend to avoid super touristy areas when possible.

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